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Words for Meat and Fish

August 25, 2016

Studying differences between Japanese and English offers insights into differences in food culture as well.

Japanese people have long depended on fish, rather than beef, pork or chicken, for example, as their main source of protein. This is reflected in the words used to describe fish and meat in Japan.

Different words for the same fish

In Japan some species of fish are called by different names at different stages of growth. These fish are called shusse-uo -- literally fish that rise through the ranks. One of the best known of these species is the yellowtail. The fry and juveniles are called wakashi. When they’ve reached a size of about 40 cm, they become inada. The ones that are about 60 cm long are called warasa. And the ones that are at least 90 cm long are referred to as buri. There are also regional differences in naming, which means that the yellowtail goes by at least 20 different names.

Calling the same fish by different names according to growth stems from a custom observed by the ancient samurai. A young boy of the warrior class would assume a different name upon coming of age. And so it is with the yellowtail. Since the taste changes as the fish matures, the fish in each stage of growth was given a different name and treated as a different ingredient.

Being an island country, seafood has always played a leading role in the Japanese diet. On one side of the archipelago is the Pacific Ocean. The waters off the east coast are rich in plankton due to the convergence of the warm Kuroshio current and the cold Oyashio current, making it one of the richest fishing grounds in the world.

Japan is a world leader in terms of the volume of fish it catches and consumes. There are countless ways to cook fish, including grilling, simmering, and of course sushi and sashimi. The prevalence of fish over meat has resulted in a far richer vocabulary for fish than meat.

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